“Exercising” the Demons

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Fitness-when-enough-becomes-too-much

I didn’t have to think about life, work, responsibilities or really anything except exactly what I was. Sometimes I absolutely hated the action – like DREADED it – but when was done it felt SO good. I was at peace and worthy of being able to relax. It was my escape, my therapy, my release, my drug. It was located at the gym, on the trail, on the track, on a bike, in a stairwell, even in the living room sometimes. I’ve spent A LOT of time doing it and if it were against the law – I would be in a maximum security prison for life.

The world tells us that exercise is good for us and it’s true. The reality is that most people don’t get enough or even any – but there’s a whole other population that’s doing it like it’s going out of style. Lives are consumed by ‘the gym’, ‘training’ and thinking about training. Rarely a day goes by without a workout – or two – or three… If some is good, more is better, right?

This was my train of thought for a VERY long time. My obsession with exercise started in the 6th grade. I remember sitting in my therapist’s office – she told me that I could start participating in P.E. class again (my weight was in a healthy place). I was excited, but not like in a crazy way – until she said, “This will help you feel like the food you’re eating isn’t all turning to fat.” From that point forward, I associated inactivity – even for a day – with FAT. I was convinced that if I didn’t exercise all the food I ate would turn to fat. Thank you therapist number one… Every day after school I HAD to ‘be active’ for 60 minutes. This involved playing soccer and/or touch football with my brother, or kicking a ball over the garage and then running to the other side to get it and kicking it back – over and over and over again. When the weather was bad I did some hybrid aerobics in the living room using a couple old couch cushions as a ‘step ’and called it dancing. It all slowly evolved from there – daily 6 mile bike rides and then 6 mile runs and then 8 mile runs. In high school there was cross country practice and then a few more miles afterward at home, in the off season there were videos – Thighs of Steel, Abs of Steel, ESPN Fitness Pros and even some Denise Austin. I started lifting then too, using my brother’s weight bench. By the time I hit my senior year of high school I was out of control – but since my weight wasn’t ‘scary’ and I was good at hiding the volume, no one really knew or said anything if they did. I worked out before school – running the stairs with my ankle weights on; during school – lifting during my study halls; and after school – more lifting, sometimes NordicTrack or a run, more stairs with ankle weights… On weekends I would drive 30 miles to the gym and workout for 4-5 hours each day. There was a period of about three months when I ate Advil like candy because I somehow hurt my foot – but I couldn’t stop.

College wasn’t much better – I went through periods where the amount was much more sane but there was RARELY a day off and my entire schedule was organized around my gym time. I needed to work out in the morning – it set the theme for the entire day. When I started working, I often got up obscenely early just so I could get a workout in before work (and most days there was another one after work). I remember biking and running in the freezing cold with my headlamp on. There were days I was at the gym at 3 am. Over time this just got worse and worse. It got to a point where I was working out 4-5 hours per day (and working full-time) during the week. Weekends meant a 6-8 hour run in the mountains on Saturday and Sunday was my ‘easy’ day – a 75 mile bike ride. There came a point when I was injured all the time – my feet, knees, hips – they had had enough, but I couldn’t quit. I found Crossfit and Crossfit Endurance and Crossfit Strength Bias and Seal Fit – all at the same time. I’ve tried seemingly everything and nothing was ever enough. Every time it started with the intent of cutting back the volume, but slowly things ALWAYS got out of hand.

My Crossfit workouts went from AMRAP 20 minutes to AMRAP 45 minutes… If my workout was one set or one minute longer on a given day, that became the new standard. Exercise was my addiction and my tolerance level just kept going up. I couldn’t stop – a missed workout meant depression, anger, a feeling of complete worthlessness – I was convinced that taking a day off meant I would lose all the ‘fitness’ and ‘strength’ I had gained. On days I didn’t work out, I didn’t deserve to eat or at least not very much or anything good. It was a vicious cycle and I went into many workouts praying that I would get injured to a point that I would have to be put in the hospital, because I knew that was the ONLY way I was going to be able to stop. I was TIRED. I wanted to rest so badly, but the mental and emotional war in my head seemed worse than any workout that I did and for that reason, I couldn’t stop. I needed someone to MAKE me stop – to tell me it was okay to STOP. In my case – someone finally did.

Exercise addiction is real. From the outside people might be telling you how much they admire your dedication and your intensity and express that they wish they had your motivation. It appears healthy – like something that’s good and only positive BUT (yeah, big but…) there’s a point where the addiction becomes all consuming. Nothing is as important as your workout. Your job, your family, your social life – they all come AFTER your workout. You might be sore, tired, sick or injured – it doesn’t matter – you’ve got to do SOMETHING. Over training is your specialty – there’s always a reason that you’ve got to get your workout in – maybe it’s a race, a competition, an event or just a personal vendetta. It’s GOT to be done. You say that exercise is how you relieve stress, that without it you’d be a mess. You NEED it to feel human and it’s healthy – you justify it – “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs.” “I exercise.”

There’s a point though, when everything you’re doing to be the picture of health is hurting more than it’s helping. Relationships suffer, injuries start happening and your body actually gets LESS fit every time you work out. If you’re caught in the addiction – none of this registers at the time, everything can be justified – and anyone that tries to tell you otherwise – well, they’re just jealous, lazy or ‘their bodies are different than yours’. You surround yourself with people that are like you and that make you feel like what you’re doing is ‘normal’. It’s a constant battle of trying to figure out how much is enough and at the same time feeling like it’s never enough. It will never be enough – EVER.

Are you controlling your workouts or are your workouts controlling you? Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly – justification free:

Have I skipped family gatherings, social functions, work or an event because it interfered with my workout schedule?

Does missing a workout or doing less than planned make me unbearably irritable and/or depressed?

Have I given up many of my other interests, including hobbies and time with friends and family, in order to keep my workout schedule?

When someone asks me how I spend my free time or what my hobbies are the only things that come to mind are all exercise related?

Do I only feel calm after I’ve worked out?

Would I choose exercise over sex, good food, a movie or really anything?

Do I work out even if I’m sick, injured, incredibly sore or exhausted?

If I have extra free time do I fill it with extra exercise?

Have my family and friends told me that I exercise too much?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any or all of those questions you need to know that your life is so much more valuable than any workout, race, competition, or number on the scale will ever be. Your value is not measured by your workouts – you are more than how many miles you’ve run or how much weight you’ve lifted. In the end, none of the matters – no one cares – at least not for any length of time. If being remembered for your dedication to exercise is your life’s goal – then by all means, keep doing what you’re doing – but understand that you are missing out on the good stuff. The stuff that really matters isn’t found in the gym – it’s waiting for you to come home from the gym and it won’t wait forever. Your friends, your family, your kids, your life – that’s the important stuff and while you’re working out or planning workouts – you’re missing experiences, friendships – life. I’ll be the first to tell you – it’s not worth it. It will never be worth it.

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  1. JT
    August 21, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Well said! I am very intrinsically motivated to exercise. I feel better, think better and am happier after i do it and i respect the physiological and functional benefits of exercise as we age. But balance is the key as you point out. The same goes with diet and technology. There’s way more to life then the gym, paleo, facebook and cell phones. I think our modern world with all its distractions and pressures disconnects us with family, friends, nature, spirit and undervalues its importance.

  2. Janice
    August 21, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Wonderful article! I have pretty much the same story. I’ve decided that for some folks, a little pudge means sanity and swollen sore muscles are no replacement for the self esteem gained from social connection. I’m sure someday researchers will tell us that for many people, especially those of us prone to addiction, performance based athletics are riskier than for folks without certain traits. But for now, managing the dose is the best I can do. I do sanity workouts now… And spend more time paying attention to folks at the gym than asking the question: what’s the most I can do? I learned that the most I can do on any given day is actually supposed to be held in reserve in case I ever need it… Not hauled out for self immolation whenever my stress level ticks up.

    I’ll never be able to not work out… It’s my medication. But I don’t overdose anymore. My weight is none of my business; it’s predicated on genes, past behaviour, stress and all sorts of other things that are outside my control, so best to just accept it. Dude, this is me at 44… I go up a size or two every ten years and and that’s my package. I used to feel like a small breasted woman living in a large breasted woman’s body (like I was transbreastual). Turns out, I’m just me… And me comes with fun-bags. My body loves its fat so much that I become amenorrheaic at 130 lbs (I’m 5,7″). I have broken bones floating around in my poor old feets from the ultras, permanent damage.

    The best thing that happened to me in the last five years was discovering robs site/podcast and hearing Keith norris talk about the health risks of performance athletics. I called my husband and said I’m pulling out of the next race and I’m quitting running.

    Yes I put on weight. I have also stated to produce the best creative work of my professional life and learned how to connect with my fellow human beings based on compassion and understanding, not competition and insecurity. Bring on the fun bags and mudflaps of middle age man… Life gets better!

    Huge thank you and cyber hug for your courage and honesty Amy. :) keep spreading the word about this stuff. Living life as “good enough” is awesome!!! Nobody anywhere ever needs to do more than 10 or 20 nice push-ups… :D

    • Amy Kubal
      August 21, 2014 at 11:44 am

      Awesomeness – just pure awesomeness!! :)

    • Denise
      August 21, 2014 at 5:26 pm

      Couldn’t agree more! I realized the same thing about a month or so ago. I feel so much better now that I am focusing on the people in my life now instead of spending hours and hours running by myself!

  3. Claudio Santos
    August 21, 2014 at 10:57 am

    I have been Paleo for 2 months and exercising 25 min a day early in the morning 5 days a week before going to work. I have to say that i feel great and since its Focus T25 think i have enough intensity for the day with dose 25 min

  4. Amy B.
    August 21, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Amy, please know I am not making light of this post, because you know I value your perspective and voice of experience with regard to something so difficult. And I admire your courage in being so honest. But I can’t help myself…I just want to point out that, regarding choosing exercise over sex, under certain circumstances, can’t they be one and the same? :D (Probably the most enjoyable workout there is, no matter how much anyone claims to “love” running or lifting!)

    But back to the regularly scheduled programming — thanks again for your courage in bringing these issues to light. It seems like there are the opposite poles, and not a whole lot in between: people doing almost no physical activity whatsoever, and people who eat, sleep, and breathe working out, sometimes to their detriment. Exercise has a U-shaped curve, just like much else with regard to health and longevity. (Not to mention quality of life and enjoyment of said longevity.)

    • Amy Kubal
      August 21, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Amy,

      You are funny! Yes, sex and exercise can be one and the same – and both can be addictions… Coincidence??

      And you’re spot on regarding the all or none attitudes surrounding exercise – we need to find that happy medium – because regardless of which side you lean toward, it’s unhealthy.

  5. Jhanna
    August 21, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Amy,

    Boy did you just describe my life. Ouch. At 46, I think I’m still looking for that elusive 20-something athlete’s body. I used to do long distance triathlon, ultra runs, blah, blah, blah. Even when I’m ‘skinny’ I don’t have that look. Guess it’s not in the cards for me this time around. I work at becoming ok with that.

    Only recently, have I been forced to slow down due to arthritis in, of all things, the big toe of my right foot. Arthritis from what, you may ask? From tripping over too many rocks during ultra runs and training for them.

    It’s hard for me to take an entire week off, or even several days in a row from working out and knowing my fitness levels are lower is still a bitter pill to swallow.

    At the same time, I can’t believe all the time I now have on my hands for other adventures!

    Thanks for the great article.

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